Gareth Huw Davies

Conservation / Environment

Could the little cirl bunting inspire the rebuilding of our countryside?

Cirl bunting. Photo: BTO

We must take the cirl bunting as an emblem of hope for the 2020s, and many decades to follow. This pretty, but insignificant, bird was saved from likely extinction in the UK not by the bird-loving public fitting up more bird boxes and putting out more feed, but by giving public money to farmers. It seems nothing else would have worked, at least not on the scale required. 

And the only way to replicate this success on a massive scale is to give masses more money to farmers to do the right thing. But that isn’t the tallest of tall orders, and at the most inconvenient time. All government has to do is give them the same money they are already receiving, but in a different way, as “public money for public goods”. If may sound like Treasury legerdemain at it most extreme. but it really isn’t.

The once common cirl bunting suffered a huge population decline, as did so many other species, when food sources and nesting sites were lost through changes to agricultural practices in the second half of the 20th century. In its one remaining stronghold, Devon, there were only 118 pairs in 1989. After a 25 year programme, in 2016, there were 1,078 pairs, and the species was becoming established in Cornwall too.

The farmers involved had enrolled in a EU-funded country stewardship scheme, in which they were paid to keep fields as stubble after harvest, provide seed food during winter months and plant grass margins around fields to support habitats for insects and spiders as a food source. Other birds, such as linnet, skylark and yellowhammer were incidental beneficiaries.

Farming was killing the bird off, and only farming could save it. Now we can look forward, with real hope, to a similar principle of state support underpinning a rescue programme for nature across the entire UK. It could be one of a few unarguable benefits of Brexit.

The government has just published the details of its proposed Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. This is the post-EU strategy to introducing new ways of funding farmers – moving from the basic payment principle to the “public money for public goods” approach.

The taxpayer, through the EU, had been paying £3 billion a year to farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Last December (2019) the Chancellor said the same sum would now be paid directly by the UK government, for the time being. It will allow direct payments to continue at the same level, and supplement the remaining EU funding that farmers receive for development projects until 2023.

Most of the remaining 14% of CAP payments fund rural development programmes including Countryside Stewardship4 (CS) and existing Socio-Economic programmes.

The full ELM agriculture funding replacement is due to come into effect in 2024. This month (March 2020) Defra published an elegant, well-written discussion, setting out the government’s “initial thinking”. Farmers have 10 weeks to respond.

‘Are there any unresolved areas?

The paper describes the difficulty in deciding whether to pay farmers for actions or outcomes, both, or something in between, recognising that measurements are imperfect and land managers are not always in control of outcomes. There is little detail on budget priorities in terms of outcomes and allocations between tiers. Stakeholders are also concerned the tier-one scheme may be setting the bar too low – taking the bulk of the budget paying for legal compliance or basic good practice when major ambition is needed to restore nature and tackle the climate crisis.

‘Who will be eligible?

Eligibility seems to vary according to tiers and there is no confirmation that entry requirements will include compliance with existing regulations, such as pollution or animal welfare. Tier one will be available to all farmers but tier two is for land managers and is likely to attract those “with more interest/experience”. Tier three, meanwhile, is for land managers with the right natural capital assets at a scale to deliver transformational land-use change.’

ENDS Report –

Defra has commissioned a series of tests and trials, such as a modest Somerset scheme in which farmers are paid to take natural measures, such as hedge planting, to tackle flooding. A bigger and more ambitious series of trials will start late in 2021, and the fully fledged ELM, underpinning the whole of UK agriculture, will begin in 2024.

Anyone over a certain age who took walks in the countryside 30 or 40 years ago will recall those missing birds. Around where I live, they include the yellowhammer, the corn bunting, the bullfinch and the skylark. 

Corn buntings, to take just one species, declined very steeply between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s, becoming extinct across large sections of their former range. Since then the decline has continued, but at a reduced rate.  There is no sign of a recovery, and no prospect of one without large-scale human intervention.

These birds, and the BTO reports 28 species showing “statistically significant population declines of greater than 50%” over the past 32–50 years, are not simply endearing little “nice to have” features for a country walk which we could just as easily do without, like a conveniently placed tea room. They are core component of our landscape, something that’s been there since the ice retreated to 10,000 years ago. And it’s been squandered, carelessly, in the blink of an eye.

It isn’t as if we don’t know what to do. The BTO is quite specific about the solution in its BirdTrends 2019. Take this on the corn bunting: “Studies of the now isolated eastern Scottish population stress the importance of providing uncut or late-cut grasses or cereals, 30-100 cm tall, with a dense ground layer of weeds or crop vegetation, as nesting habitat.”

The funding for the successful rescue of the cirl bunting came from the small part of the CAP set aside for rural development programmes such as Countryside Stewardship (CS). (The remaining 86% of CAP, and its temporary replacement, constitutes direct income support – Basic Payment Scheme, BPS, with no environmental improvement strings attached.)

Defra notes: “The current CS scheme delivers much better value for money than BPS in terms of environmental outcomes, but because of the constraints of the CAP, become bureaucratic, prescriptive and carries a high administrative overhead. Most importantly, CS is insufficient in scale to deliver the ambitious goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan.”

Taking comfort, and confidence, from the curl bunting project in Devon, it’s not too fanciful to imagine that many of these species could recover, and some of them significantly, over the coming decades, without loss of income to farmers, or any overall impact on our ability to produce food. Other pressures and influences, principally climate change, will continue to depress the numbers of plant and animal species in the countryside, but we would at least have arrested, and probably reversed a dreadful overall decline.

In a year of international catastrophe, restoring the sound effects of a  walk in the countryside might seem a low priority for many people. But the wildlife that is around us should be a comfort to society as a whole. And, compared to many other problems that confront us, the solution is relatively easy. And because we’re spending the same money in a different way, it should be something we can actually afford.